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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

entry arrow7:43 PM | Design Needs a Strong and Clear Vision

Freida Lee Mock's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994) won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1995 -- roughly around the time I was a sophomore in college and was becoming aware of strong, critically-acclaimed, and often un-commercial movies in my midst, and also of the awards hoopla that showcases them in a kind of circus. This means that I was very much aware of Maya Lin's win that year, but I was not particularly interested in seeing it. Nonfiction film was a distant country for which I held no visa, and I was quite fine with that. (Oh, the stupid snobbishness of the young.)

What I knew of the film was that it was about the design selection and the making of the now iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the mall in Washington, D.C. The choice of Maya Lin's design was inspired -- and I knew she beat other more established designers and architects for the job. What I didn't know was how controversial the choice of her design was. What I also wasn't aware of was how powerful her design was in reality. In 2010, while on a brief visit to the American capital, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the monument. I am going to use the word "inexplicable" because I didn't go to the area to visit it in particular. Instead, I went to see the gigantic statue of Lincoln sitting. But in the morning of my visit, I found myself strolling around the mall and I turned one corner and then saw Lin's black slabs nearby -- and knew I had to see it, to touch some of the names, to see just how special this design was in service of memory. What I did not foresee was how embracing the whole monument was. I sat on the grass that fronted the slabs in a spirit of contemplation, and was overwhelmed by the immenseness of its significance: all those names gone in the service of a senseless war.

I had the experience of the monument first before I saw the film. Very much an afterthought, the film was a fascinating footnote of origins for me, but truth to tell, Mock's film isn't exactly groundbreaking cinema, nor something soundly directed or constructed. Lin and her supporters' struggle (and eventual compromise) to bring to fruition their vision of the memorial is the ultimate drama of the film, but it deflates in its half-hearted and often unsure expansion towards non-Memorial tidbits. In the light of the elegance of more recent nonfiction cinematic efforts, this film feels and looks dated -- it feels like an amateurish cobbling together of visual data -- and I have become aware of how more contemporary documentarians have indeed learned to augment their craft to have a zing in pictorial narrative.

But its weaknesses do not distract from the richness of its subject matter. There are many things to take away from this film -- the ludicrousness of the arguments of the memorial's early critics (many of them Republicans), for example. But I took away two specific things closest to my heart.

One is the subject of design. Early in the film, we get a montage of the many submissions the commission assigned the task of overseeing the design selection received. And what we get are a slew of terrible ideas that are connected by two characteristics: first, the fussiness of needless details, and second, the lack of a clear vision to telegraph simply a complex idea. Take a look at some of these misfires...

Soaring above these efforts is Maya Lin's minimalist design: just a recess on a grassy embankment that embraces two perpendicular slabs containing names of the war dead. Its sheer simplicity is poetry. Less is more.

But the film also strikes me as being such a strong reminder about being steadfast in one's artistic vision despite the mean-spirited naysayers and the crippling politics that often hold sway.

"We were fighting against standards, we were fighting against traditional viewpoints -- and I think that's what art does to a certain degree, and that's pushing the envelope, you're pushing it past its known definitions, and you are going to get a lot of people who are going to fight it. I think that's one of the prices you pay," Lin says in reflection.

Noted. There will always be resistance. The trick is to stay strong and clear.

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